Contra Costa County Should Unite Behind Marin Clean Energy 

Tom Butt
  • Tom Butt
On May 2, the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors has a choice to make regarding which local, clean energy agency it will join to power homes and businesses in unincorporated parts of the county.

The choice is between the well-established MCE (originally known as Marin Clean Energy) and East Bay Community Energy (EBCE), the Alameda County-based startup. It is presumed that many Contra Costa cities will quickly follow the County’s lead as they decide between MCE and EBCE in the next couple of months.

As mayor of Richmond, and vice-chair of MCE, California’s first community choice energy (CCE) agency, I hope the Board of Supervisors will make the logical choice to select MCE. In doing so, Contra Costa would join five existing MCE members — Richmond, San Pablo, El Cerrito, Lafayette and Walnut Creek, to bring competitively-priced renewable energy to the rest of the county.

Energy is not called “power” by coincidence. Since Richmond joined MCE in 2013, ratepayers in our city have benefited from lower rates, more energy choices, local job-creating renewable energy projects, higher rebates for surplus energy generated by home solar systems and, most importantly, a seat at the energy policy table.

MCE has a proven track record of success when it comes to navigating the complexities of California’s energy markets. MCE customers, including all taxpayers, have saved millions of dollars while reducing carbon emissions compared to PG&E.

Better still, MCE customers have generated or saved millions of dollars more through MCE’s innovative rooftop solar policies, energy efficiency, and other customer programs. For example, MCE paid its own solar customers over a million dollars for the surplus energy they generated last year.

Meanwhile, MCE is bringing on line local renewable energy projects in Marin, Contra Costa and Napa counties while steadily building its financial reserves, currently at $50 million. MCE's established credit profile makes possible larger and more nimble investments in local energy generation. By contrast, emerging CCE programs, like Alameda County’s EBCE, will need time to develop their credit history and feasibility.

Since MCE began serving a handful of Marin customers in 2010, it has expanded to include all of Marin and Napa counties, five cities in Contra Costa County and the City of Benicia. With CCEs now forming up and down California, MCE is still considered the gold standard and the model that new CCEs emulate. MCE has used this experience to help others, having actively supported Sonoma, San Francisco, San Mateo, Alameda and many other sister CCEs.

While I’m optimistic about the prospects of new CCEs, California’s energy markets are notoriously complex, and wholesale electricity rates have already dropped to historic lows. New entrants and enterprising local governments would be wise to follow MCE’s “walk-before-you-run” approach. Both Sonoma and Marin were operational for at least two years before they began including new communities. These agencies mitigated risks by growing gradually and learning from experience.

Perhaps one unforeseen consequence of MCE’s success has been making the business of renewable energy look too easy. The broader CCE community has been puzzled by EBCE’s recent focus on expansion, rather than on addressing the essential components of its program, such as procuring energy supply, establishing rates, hiring staff, paying off debts and persuading all the cities within its own borders to join. Why is EBCE running a full-court press to recruit communities in Contra Costa County when ratepayers in Oakland, Berkeley and the Tri-Valley area still remain “choiceless” when it comes to energy?

Our supervisors and County staff have admirably performed their due diligence by exploring every possible CCE option. But comparing MCE to what Alameda County’s EBCE has at this stage is like comparing a fully operational facility to a blueprint or artist’s rendition of one. I hope EBCE can “hit the ground running,” but it still needs to get its feet underneath itself before pursuing expansion. In the meantime, Contra Costa’s elected leaders can unite our county through the collective power of community choice energy with MCE.


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